Richard Linklater's 1995 film Before Sunrise and its first sequel, 2004's Before Sunset, tell a pair of simple stories. In the first, a young American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) strikes up on a conversation on a train with a pretty French girl named Celine (Julie Delpy). There's a spark, and on the spur of the moment, he makes a suggestion: that she get off the train with him and spend the night walking and talking in Vienna. Intrigued, she takes him up on the rather risky invitation, and over the course of that night, they fall into something resembling love. In the second film, the couple reconnects nine years later, as Jesse (now an unhappily married father) spends the last few hours of his European book tour—he wrote a novel based on their initial encounter—catching up with Celine in Paris. That film ends with the hint that he might make a choice as daring as hers at the beginning of the first: to "miss that plane," and hit the reset button on his entire existence.
In other words, the first two films were about the reckless impulsiveness of young romance. Ingeniously, the third film in the series, Before Midnight, is about the consequences of that impulsiveness.
A word of warning: If you've somehow managed to avoid learning where Jesse and Celine have landed, by all means, preserve that surprise. The 2004 film managed to keep the narrative specifics under wraps, but that was a different time in movie marketing, and since the trailers and promotional materials for this one aren't keeping the secret, it's apparently up for discussion. So here's what's what: Jesse did, in fact, miss that plane. He and his wife split, he and Celine have cohabitated but not wed, and they have a pair of twin girls together. They live in Paris, so Jesse doesn't see his son from his previous marriage as much as he'd like, and as the film begins, he's putting the boy on a plane for the States at the end of a family vacation in Greece.
During that goodbye, his son mentions that a proposed visit is a bad idea, "because Mom hates you so much." Linklater's camera follows Jesse back to the car tentatively; Celine and his daughters wait there, but it's a sad trudge, and the contrast to the previous pictures is evident immediately. This life with Celine was, for years, all that he wanted, and the primary preoccupation of his imagination. But now it's a reality, and reality is messier than the flights of fantasy in fiction.
That realization becomes clearer as the particulars of Jesse and Celine's situation reveal themselves. As his son indicated, relations with Jesse's ex-wife are strained; "Why do you think she still hates me so much?" Celine asks. The infrequent visits of the long-distance relationship with his son are getting to Jesse ("I just don't think I can keep doing this"), and he asks her to consider moving to Chicago, so he can be "more present" in his son's life. Celine resists. And it is this bit of tension—a question of geography, not of love or lust—that calls their entire relationship into doubt over the course of Before Midnight's long evening.
The centerpiece of that evening, and of the film, is an encounter in a hotel room, played out in 30 minutes of real time. Their Greek friends have booked the room for the couple and are taking care of their twins, so that they can have a night to themselves, and with simple plotting and stage direction, the scene masterfully examines how a couple can blow a sure thing for themselves. The foreplay is comfortable and homey, but the tension is too thick and knocks them off-course; they start pushing buttons, killing the mood, making the conscious decision not to let things slide. (Even with the dialogue muted, you can track their miscommunication by the wildly divergent removal and retrieval of clothing items.) Much of the scene plays, as these films often do, in long takes, which gives the audience little relief from the all-out, everything-on-the-table viciousness of their fighting. Early on, Celine says "I'm kidding and I'm not, all right," but by the time they get to that hotel, she's not kidding anymore.
It's unnerving and difficult to watch these two avatars for idealistic young love going at each other with such venom—it's like seeing Romeo and Juliet battle. But by grappling with the reality that must eventually invade even the most starry-eyed of romances, Before Midnight becomes the finest, most grown-up film yet in the series. A character says that Jesse's third novel is "a better book—it's so much more ambitious," and that holds for the films as well, because the first two films are about possibility, and the third is about reality.
In Before Sunrise, Celine closes her eyes and takes a leap with Jesse; at the end of Before Sunset, Jesse returns the favor. But acts of reckless abandon have consequences, and in Before Midnight, the couple must deal with those consequences. Yet—and this is the genius of the picture, and the grandness of its achievement—the film demonstrates that a relationship strong enough to withstand the fallout of those actions is infinitely more impressive than the entirely harmonious one of romantic imagination. Before Sunrise imagined romantic love as yours for the taking. Before Sunset saw it as something that might slip from one's grasp. Before Midnight looks it straight in the eye and calls it out as hard fucking work. "It's not perfect," as Jesse says. "But it's real."